Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Madness of Technical Public Relations

In the exciting world of public relations, the death of the press release has recently been discussed again. This time it was a UK government executive, Alex Aiken, who argued that press officers should become content producers and realise that tweets, infographics or videos may be a more relevant method of disseminating a message. 

That of course is a clever strategy if you want to bury the news, making it difficult for journalists to find the overview after the event as the original story is fragmented all over the place. I'll come back to this in a future post.

But this talk of press releases reminds me of an excellent article in the Silicon Valley Watcher about the author's wish that the press release would die. It is not new. Tom Foremski wrote it in February 2006. Yet in my circles, nothing has happened in over 7 years. I quote: 

Press releases are nearly useless. They typically start with a tremendous amount of top-spin, they contain pat-on-the-back phrases and meaningless quotes. Often they will contain quotes from C-level executives praising their customer focus. They often contain praise from analysts, (who are almost always paid or have a customer relationship.) And so on...
Press releases are created by committees, edited by lawyers, and then sent out at great expense through Businesswire or PRnewswire to reach the digital and physical trash bins of tens of thousands of journalists.
This madness has to end. 
The press room on the last day of ISE Europe 2013. All this paper will be dumped in a few hours time
Unfortunately, this madness is still going on. Let me explain.
Part of my work involves writing and researching in the tech field. Several times a year I am bombarded by PR consultants who are simply interested in using me as an amplifier for their client. The problem is they have no clue about the context of the information they are trying to shift. And they have little understanding of how modern tech journalism works. The blame for this lies not only with the PR agency but also with the tech manufacturer themselves. 

Bright voices at the other end of the phone believe that success is being measured by the number of likes on a Facebook page, a retweeted Tweet, or the "column inches in a national newspaper".  No-one ever measures if the message reached potential customers and whether, as a result, they decided to follow-up.

After the latest International Broadcasting Convention in Amsterdam, I totalled up the number of press releases. This year I opened up a special Yahoo account to avoid PR pollution in my general inbox. I counted a total of 213 press releases related to IBC, about 80% of which were press releases written in a 1960's style that Tom complained about in 2006. I dumped them all after the show.

Amsterdam, November 30th. At the AGM of Company X, CEO Dr Y announced that sales of their new 4K projector would 140% up on expectations....blah blah. 

The sad state of Tech Public Relations

But it gets worse. The arrival of the email release is often followed up with an urgent request that I book an appointment at the show with their spokesperson because their schedule is tight and there has been huge interest. 

I know, for experience, that if I take them up on the offer, I will often be hounded again after the show to report back on how many page-views the item generated or which networks it was used on. Otherwise I will be struck off their list of "influentials".

Which is why I never respond to these mail shots and just glance at press releases. 

The material is so badly written that I would be a fool to quote from it. It is simply one source of input. I might use it to trigger an idea, that's where it ends. It is simply a shoutout, rather like a free flyer market traders keep shoving through my letterbox.

I also laugh out loud at the agencies that are still putting physical press kits together, dumping CD-ROMs in the press-office. Which century are these people living in? My Mac laptop doesn't even have a DVD-player any more. So who didn't get the memo?

Lessons Learned

As a tech writer and analyst I need a briefing not a press release. A useful backgrounder. Maybe a conversation with a specialist. 

In 2006 Tom Foremski concluded on what he needed. I would argue that much of it still applies to today.
  • Deconstruct the media release into clear sections and tag the information so that as a publisher, I can pre-assemble some of the news story and make the information useful.
  • Provide a brief description of what the announcement is about, but leave the spin to the journalists. The journalists will go with their own spin on the story anyway, so why bother? Cut the hype.
  • Provide a page of relevant quotes from the CEO or other C-level execs.
  • Provide a page of quotes from customers, if applicable.
  • Provide a page of quotes from analysts, if applicable.
  • Provide financial information in many different formats.
  • Provide relevant links inside the press release copy to related news stories or reference sources.
Tech manufacturers, PR agencies and the tech press seriously need new guidelines of engagement. They have to understand how to build narratives in a modern world where sharing has more influence than shouting. They need to abandon paper releases immediately. 
There are examples of tech companies that are getting it. In my view, SES-Astra was the best at IBC 2013.  
I believe that the clever PR agencies will re-examine what "relations" are all about. Until then, I will be chucking out hours of someone else's work. Or trying to get photos/video off a CD-ROM.
Who is interested in a further conversation? Put me on the list.

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